“In Harm’s Way” is a WWII naval combat film based on
the book “Harm’s Way” by James Bassett.
It was directed by Otto Preminger.
He envisioned it as a pro-Navy film and the Navy must have agreed
because it gave extensive cooperation including allowing filming at Pearl
Harbor. The Navy also provided
ships. Wayne’s cruiser was played by the
U.S.S. St. Paul. However, the main
battle was done with models. It was the
last war epic in black and white and John Wayne’s last black and white
film. He was diagnosed with lung cancer
after the picture was finished and was coughing up blood during the shoot. This did not prevent him from sticking with
his six pack a day habit. The title
comes from the John Paul Jones quote: “I
wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast , for I intend
to go in harm’s way.” The movie received
an Academy Award nomination for Cinematography.
The movie covers the period from the attack on Pearl
Harbor through early successes in the first year of the war in the
Pacific. Capt. Torrey (Wayne) is on duty
off Hawaii when the attack occurs. His
heavy cruiser, called “Old Swayback”, is joined by the destroyer U.S.S. Cassidy,
which managed to exit the harbor during the attack. Old Swayback gets torpedoed and has to be
towed back to Pearl. Torrey’s career is
on hold because of this, which allows the soap opera plot to develop without
combat interfering. There are three
interlocking arcs. Torrey courts an
age-appropriate nurse named Maggie (Patricia O’Neal). He is reunited with his son Jere (Brandon
DeWilde) who is in PT-boats. They are
estranged because like in most American war movies, Torrey has chosen his
career over his family. Torrey’s exec
Eddington (Kirk Douglas) loses his adulterous wife in the attack and he is now
a bitter alcoholic, but still trusted by Torrey. He gets involved with Jere’s fiancé, nurse
Annalee (Jill Haworth). Eventually,
Torrey is restored to active duty and oversees the capturing of a Japanese-held
island and then a campaign to attack another one. This culminates in a huge battle with plenty
The soap opera aspects of the plot are reminiscent of
“From Here to Eternity” and that was probably purposeful, although it does
reflect the book’s plot. The movie
begins with a naval wife having an affair, but in this case, she gets what she
deserves. The movie is classified as a
Pearl Harbor movie, but it only uses the attack as a jumping off point. There is little of the attack in the
film. Heck, the main character is not
even at Pearl at the time. The film
could have been the rare look at Navy actions in the first year of the war, but
it is only a cursory history lesson and all of the islands are fictional. The plot interweaves the subplots, but only
the Torrey and Eddington characters really get satisfactory coverage. This is not surprising considering the star
power of Wayne and Douglas. Both are
fine in their roles. Wayne does not
stretch and plays Torrey as stoical and imperturbable. His romance with O’Neal is tepid, but
realistic. Douglas has more fun as the
caddish Eddington. You could see him
playing Torrey, but there is no way Wayne could (or would) have played
Eddington. Eddington gets to roller
coaster from alcoholic has-been to trusted adviser to rapist to kamikaze
redemption. Whereas, with Torrey, it’s
smooth sailing. There is a shallow
subplot involving a scheming politician/officer named Owynn (slimily played by
Patrick O’Neal) and his incompetent admiral/mentor, but it is dropped when
everyone realizes you don’t get the better of John Wayne.
The cast is minor league all-star. O’Neal is perfectly cast as Maggie. Tom Tryon plays the destroyer captain and has
a few romantic interludes with his wife played by Paula Prentiss. Although Wayne and Patricia O’Neal got along
well with each other (after a rocky time on “Operation Pacific”) and they both
liked working with the dictatorial director Preminger, Douglas had to get in Otto’s
face and counseled the much-maligned Tryon to do likewise. Unfortunately, Tryon (who had been tormented
during the filming of “The Cardinal”) refused to stand up for himself and it
got so bad that he retired from acting.
Henry Fonda warms up for his role in “Midway” by playing CINCPAC.
All the drama would be worth it if the combat paid
off, but it’s all saved for the finale (in a 2:45 movie). When Torrey and crew get sent to Gavabutu to
end the stalemate there, you expect some land combat, but instead it is all
about the plan and little about the execution.
The final naval battle probably wowed audiences in the 60’s (before
modern war films kicked in), but the models are obvious. Not a single Japanese soldier or sailor
appears in the movie. Bizarrely, little
effort is made to distinguish between the two fleets and you can’t tell who is
who. I have to give it credit for trying
to show the mayhem that can occur in a
surface battle in the Pacific.
Considering the odds Torrey faces, the outcome is realistic.
ALERT: How does it compare to the
book? Right off the bat, the movie gets
credit for improving on the title. After
the title card, the script is amazingly similar to the book. Wendell Mayes did not get very creative other
than to consolidate some scenes for time purposes. Much of his dialogue is from the book, but
unfortunately, he does not use enough of it.
This is especially true in the Torrey/Maggie courtship. O’Neal is let down by Mayes. Maggie is a fascinating character that is
exceptional in this type of film. She is
older and much plainer than cinematic nurses usually are. Her banter with Torrey is filled with
snark. Their relationship is
mature. The problem is Wayne undoubtedly
refused to play a lovestruck and shy divorcee.
The relationship is a highlight of the book, but Wayne had to be Wayne.
The movie makes some minor changes for the
better. In the book, Torrey goes to meet
Jere for the first time in years and oddly, Jere is not cold toward him and is
enthused about being in PTs. The
estrangement and coldness of the relationship in the movie makes more sense,
but then Mayes has Jere remarking about not wanting to go in harm’s way and
enlisting to get a leg up for his future career. He becomes a toady for Owynn in the movie and
then changes on a dime. The movie
follows the book as far as Gavabutu is concerned, which is a shame because
Bassett disappointingly has the whole secret, daring plan being anti-climactic
because the Japanese were withdrawing anyway.
The final battle in the movie is substantially simplified. In the book, there are actually two battles
since there are two Japanese fleets. The
first is what the movie depicts and it’s fairly close. However, in the book, Torrey is in the second
battle. This is also where the Yamato
is. This battle includes three baby
carriers and their torpedo bombers, but no PT-boats. The pummeling Torrey’s fleet takes is
realistic, but could not be portrayed in a 1960s movie. The same characters die and in similar
ways. Torrey ends up on the hospital
ship with Maggie.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The book was not meant to be
accurate. It does not even claim to be
“based on a true story”. There was a
destroyer that escaped from Pearl Harbor during the attack. But the captain of the USS Alywin did not
come as close to getting on board as the USS Cassidy’s. Old Swayback is based on USS Salt Lake City
which was away at the time of the attack as part of the USS Enterprise task
force returning from Wake Island. The
force did sortie from Pearl to search for the Japanese fleet and did encounter
submarines, but the Salt Lake City was not hit.
Gavabutu is vaguely reminiscent of Guadalcanal. There were paramarines in the Pacific, but
there were no parachute drops. The final
two battles are clearly based on the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. The first is based on the Battle of Surigao
Strait. This was the battle where an
American fleet of old battleships “crossed the T” on a Japanese fleet heading
for the invasion fleet off Leyte in the Philippines. The second is based on the Battle off
Samar. In this case, a powerful Japanese
fleet led by the Yamato surprised a ragtag American fleet based on escort
carriers. The carriers’ planes and the
destroyers and escort destroyers (there were no cruisers) put up an amazing
fight, but took losses similar to the book.
Unbelievably, the Japanese (including the Yamato) did snatch defeat from
the jaws of victory and turned away when they had clearly won.
CONCLUSION: Those who read this blog might recall that I have a
belief that movies based on novels should be better than the novel. In this case, Wendell Mayes had a
best-selling novel to adapt. He could
take that foundation and improved on it.
In some ways he did, the Eddington arc makes more sense. Torrey’s awkward relationship with his son is
an improvement. However, overall the
book is better than the movie. This is
particularly true of the romance between Torrey and Maggie. It is a welcome change from the usual. The Torrey of the book is no ladies man and
in fact, is shy and awkward around women.
He is embarrassingly lovestruck at times. He’s not John Wayne. Maggie is even more fascinating. She’s a feisty old maid. The banter between them always has her
leading. Patricia O’Neal was
shortchanged when most of this dialogue was eliminated. The movie invents the collusion between Jere
and Owynn and that is a misstep. The
main superiority of the novel is the final battle. Bassett does an outstanding job setting it up
and then depicting the pure chaos of modern warships battering each other. As the book points out, it’s not like you can
run away or even surrender. Once
superior warships with bigger guns and longer range zero in on you, you are
royally fucked. A 1965 war movie did
not have the ability to recreate that scenario.
I had enjoyed the movie when I was a kid and then we
I rewatched it for this blog a few years ago, I turned full circle and gave it
a scathing review. This recent viewing,
paired with reading the novel, has boosted my appreciation of the film. The book is good and the movie is faithful in
screening it. It’s still not a very good
movie, but it is hard to do naval war movies well.